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View Full Version : Mixed feelings about "brilliant" highly acclaimed Guyana "novel"



aruna
04-13-2012, 10:26 AM
Those who know me also know of my gripe, that agents and publishers have always reminded me that publishing is xenophobic when it comes to novels set in obscure countries like my own, Guyana, which readers have never heard of.

Very well. So I was pretty delighted to hear that a new "novel" set in Guyana is making waves in the literary scene. The Sly Company of People WHo Care by Rahu l B attacharya, an Indian national, has won the Hindu prize and is shortlisted for the Man Asian Prize, and is no doubt in other prize lists as well. It's about a young Indian journalist who spends a year in Guyana "a forgotten colonial society of raw mesmerizing beauty". I'd never heard of this writer before but google brought up all kinds of rave reviews, from the Guardian to the New York Times, Washington Post, Times, Independent, Wall Street Journal, Boston Globe -- you name it. He has been compared in these reviews to Naipaul and Rushdie and Waugh and even Dante.

So I bought it, in great excitement. And am sorely disappointed. For a start, it isn't a novel at all. It's a fictionalised travelogue. I'm three chapters in and all the author has done till now is describe the quirky characters his MC (obviously, a fictionalised version of himself) meets in Guyana. All these really weird, amusing people nobody could ever take seriosly, all speaking in creole and saying pretty outrageous things; he has also taken an overland trip to "the waterfall", obviously, Kaieteur.

Sure, the writing is --- unusual. Not my thing; too clever, too contrived, to manipulated. You have to reread many sentences to get what he is saying, and since he uses a lot of Guyanese slang within the actual text I wonder how many non-Guyanese actually understand some of the prose? No character is more than skin deep up to now; just quirky. In style, it's the cliche of a very literary "novel", except that it's not a novel: there's no story. Like I said, it's a travel memoir. It's pretty plain to see that all the scenes are simply reproductions of conversations with eccentric locals he had himself. Character diversity is obviously a big theme, and that seems to be what all these reviewers find so fascinating. Big deal. Not one of the characters is anything more than "funny" - not funny ha-ha, funny foreign: non-European/American and therefore "interesting". Almost like in a zoo.

So yes, I'm bitterly disappointed, but at the same time want it to do well, just so that Guyana gets a bit more attention. Trust me, it deserves more attention. Not only for my own sake and the novels I haven't been able to get published and the new one I'm writing right now: it's a genuinly interesting country and the stories that come out of it are well worth hearing. Unfortunately, this is not one of those stories.

Anyway -- this is just a bit of a rant. Maybe the book will get better. But so much gets my back up. The way one of the characters speaks of Amerindian women, for instance: that having sex with them is always just like rape because -- oh well. Boy's talk kind of thing. I hate it.

aruna
04-14-2012, 02:42 PM
OK, I'm halfway through and I can confirm this is NOT a novel. I understand the allocades. It is indeed very well written, and the comparisons to Naipaul are credible.

In one chapter he describes an overland trip to Kaiteur Falls, excruciatingly well delivered, and it is obviously exactly what it says it is: a first-hand account of a trip the author made himself. So much precise detail, so much description, could not have been invented, and it's not something he reconstructed from memory, as I would do if writing a Guyana novel. It's followed by a trip into the Interior with two diamond prospectors: again, obviously a true-life account. Followed by a chapter on the country's history: in a novel: pure info-dump lasting several pages. Followed by a ruminations on the politics of the country, and on its racial problems. The kind of thing Naipaul would write.

The 1st person narrator is a young Indian national,a sports journalist, who decies to spend a year in the country after a short visit. So is the author. The narrator is never named by name; but in reading it's obvious that the author is just being himself.

And yet it is touted as a novel. "This is his first novel", says the bio in the book. "A great first novel", say some of the blurbs. The Man Asia prize is a prize for Asian novels.

I don;t know what the hell is going on here. Perhaps later on in the book there is fiction - th epart where he meets a woman and has an affair with her. I don't know. But up to now the book is solidly non-fiction. A travelogue.

Totally weird.

Alessandra Kelley
04-14-2012, 03:50 PM
What you have here is a roman clef, considered a type of novel even though it is thinly disguised autobiography.

I'm probably being cynical and inaccurate, but when I was in college a friend characterised one type of roman clef as the sort of literary fiction the literary critics in New York went gaga over, viz.:

The main character is an author living in New York, young if the actual author is young, middle-aged if he (oh yes, it was always a he) is middle-aged, and old if the actual author is old. He spends his time sitting around, drinking coffee, and complaining bitterly about his life. Then he has sex with beautiful women.

Unfair overgeneralisations aside, many people do seem to love these trip-through-Wonderland sorts of books and don't always consider how very peculiar they read to people from the actual places depicted.

How much, for example, does Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas resemble the real people and places in it? I bet it looks darned peculiar to those who were there at the time.

Which is not to undermine your disappointment. It's awful to be on the receiving end of one of those those-magical-whimsical-people stories.

aruna
04-14-2012, 06:11 PM
You're probably right (I haven't read Fear and Loathing in LA, though) but I do expect a lot more novel in a roman a clef - for instance, a STORY!!!
What is particularly irritating is that ALL the people he has his conversations with are of the **ahem** dark underbelly of society. The drifters, the semi-criminals, the noble poor. All of them speak broken English; and now he too is picking up the dialect. Anyone reading this book would think that the entire Guyanese society is made up of uneducated layabouts saying "whuh yuh doin' bai?" or discussing the shape of women's genitals.
I am pretty sure that in the second half there is going to be a hot lust-affair with a beautiful half-black, half-Indian creole girl, and that might very well be fiction, especially if the sex is explicit.

aruna
04-15-2012, 10:45 AM
I finished it last night. There were a few pages of page-turning story towards the end. As for the girl-relationship, here's what the blurb says:

"...but he is not just seduced by the country: he is also captivated by the feisty yet fragile Jan, and together they embark on an adventure which will take them into a new country and change both their lives."

In fact, he meets Jan 100 pages before the book's end. She is basically a pick-up, extremely shallow and stupid. The "change their lives forever" thing is that it's one of those forgettable relationships where you look back and think "how could I have been so damn blind"? and resolve to be more choosy in future before rushing into things.

I think the relationship is true life, since the "new country" they go to is also obviously firsthand experience, and he himself comes out of it looking rather stupid. If it were fiction he's have surely made himself a hero. In fact, I felt sorry for both of them -- you know the kind of thing, when you want to stop people you know getting into a relationship mess.

All in all, the best part for me was the trip into interior, and diamond prospecting. The Guyanese people he meets make me go huh?He makes a big deal out of their quaint Creolese language, which I suppose to outsiders might be interesting; the things they say are dressed up to look really, really profound when in fact it's all just very banal. I could write similar stuff about the things my mother's cleaner said or the carpenter and taxi drivers you meet in the course of daily life. Just because they "talk funny" (to non-Guyanese) doesn't mean they have anything especially worth putting into a book. It's just chit-chat. In three weeks in Guyana I met many truly fantastic and unusual Guyanese, but they speak standard English so I guess they wouldn't fit into a book like this -- not quaint enough.

I had a bit of a chuckle at the end when I read the acknowledgements -- my (step) brother is one of the people he thanks. Nigel's a political science professor at a US university, so I guess he helped with the background.

I have to admit I am envious of his writing skills, and I see how it makes all the difference if you can write like a Rushdie. I can't; I write in straightforward English with not too many lush metaphors for the critics to chew on. But I have better content.

A Guyanese journalist friend tells me it got mixed reviews in Guyana. I can't see many literate Guyanese being thrilled at this book. It makes us look like people in a zoo, on display for quirkiness but not much else to offer; messed up people in a messed up country.

Keyan
04-15-2012, 01:33 PM
Thanks for the review, Aruna... I read a review of it in India Currents, a California Indian diaspora magazine, and immediately wondered what you thought.

Kitty Pryde
04-15-2012, 09:08 PM
That's a really interesting review, aruna. It seems like such a major empathy fail to stereotype and exoticise an entire diverse nation's worth of people in novel form. There's a long list of countries/peoples for which it's no longer acceptable to do that for. Sorry to hear Guyana isn't on that list. Even more a shame that for most people this will be the sole source of information on Guyana they have.

Alessandra Kelley
04-15-2012, 10:38 PM
The Guyanese people he meets make me go huh?He makes a big deal out of their quaint Creolese language, which I suppose to outsiders might be interesting; the things they say are dressed up to look really, really profound when in fact it's all just very banal. I could write similar stuff about the things my mother's cleaner said or the carpenter and taxi drivers you meet in the course of daily life.


It sounds like the Way of Mrs. Cosmopilite. (http://wiki.lspace.org/wiki/The_Way_of_Mrs._Cosmopilite)

(In Terry Pratchett's Discworld books, a monk from mountainous, spiritual regions travels to the big, grimy city in the lowlands and takes a room with Mrs. Cosmopoilite in order to find enlightenment. He writes down her pronouncements and interprets them as deep truths. This being the Discworld, it actually works.)

aruna
04-16-2012, 11:47 AM
I've just read the reviews on amazon.com (http://www.amazon.com/The-Sly-Company-People-Care/product-reviews/0374265852/ref=cm_cr_dp_hist_one?ie=UTF8&showViewpoints=0&filterBy=addOneStar)and (no surprise!) there was my good friend Amanda Richards giving it the only one-star review. Amanda is Guyanese and unlike me actually lives there, so the book hit a nerve there too. Funnily enough, when I met her in March she told me about this book and how awful it was; only when I read her review did I make the connection, that this is that book!

I'm about to write my own official review. Will post it here.

aruna
04-16-2012, 01:13 PM
I think that what is earning him the rave reviews is that he is an Indian himself. If this book had been written by a white American or Brit people would have surely felt uneasy about his patronising attitude.

I've written my amazon review, but I think I'll revise it to add that little insight, which has only now occured to me.

aruna
04-16-2012, 02:50 PM
So, my official review is up (http://www.amazon.com/The-Sly-Company-People-Care/product-reviews/0374265852/ref=cm_cr_dp_hist_two?ie=UTF8&showViewpoints=0&filterBy=addTwoStar)! I gave it two stars: for the writing.

lolchemist
04-16-2012, 09:24 PM
Have you ever read the Merde (http://www.amazon.com/A-Year-Merde-Stephen-Clarke/dp/1582346178/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1334596870&sr=8-2) series by Stephen Clarke? The book you described kind of reminds me of them. They're about a British guy who moves to France and has culture shock. And the author is....... I'll let you complete the rest of that sentence lol. But to his credit, the books get more and more fictional as the series moves on.

aruna
04-17-2012, 06:57 PM
I haven't read the series, but I've heard of it.
I'm not against writers writing about societies foreign to them in general; but I do think that those writers should at least try to balance their experiences. This guy sought out exclusively people living on the fringe and almost glorifies crime, or at least takes a humourous stance on it, whereas it is a very serious problem in Guyana. And the relationship he develops with a poor Guyanese woman near the end is nothing short of exploitative -- but as a foreigner, he can't see that. Too bad.
Anyway, mine is almost a lone voice in the chorus of praise so maybe I'm just too close to the subject to be unbiased.

PPartisan
04-17-2012, 08:12 PM
Good review aruna, if I'd read this on a blog you'd be getting a follow ;)

I do tend to find that the kind of media critics go crazy for is in this dull, graduate gap-year style. For some reason the idea of a boring nobody pottering around a country, sleeping with locals and then putting his irrelevant world view to print just grips them too much. They should know better, but perhaps the wish fulfillment is too appealing.

Your review actually reminded me a lot of when I went to see the film "Monsters," that UK critics has cited as the insightful, Indie alternative to Hollywood. Naturally, this got me excited. In fact what I saw was an hour and a half of atrocious dialogue, zero plot and an incredibly ham-fisted moral message to top it all off. As you appreciated the writing in this book, what I appreciated in the movie was the cinematography, but everything else was a horrible let down. I also felt its portrayal of Mexicans was very condescending (it's a country formed of prostitutes and donkey-riding peasants apparently.)

So, even though I haven't read this book, I feel from my own experiences and from your review that I'd know what to expect.

P.s. Take home message: It isn't cool to have no plot, shallow characters or belittle locals. Please don't do it guys :(

Amadan
05-03-2012, 06:34 PM
"...but he is not just seduced by the country: he is also captivated by the feisty yet fragile Jan, and together they embark on an adventure which will take them into a new country and change both their lives."

Well, of course, no life-enriching sightseeing tour through exotic foreignlandia is complete without scoring some "feisty yet fragile" foreign tail. I'm surprised she wasn't a prostitute whose life the authorMC changed by being "nice" to her (read: had a conversation with her in which he briefly pretends the poor thing is an actual person).



I think that what is earning him the rave reviews is that he is an Indian himself. If this book had been written by a white American or Brit people would have surely felt uneasy about his patronising attitude.

Yup. Western authors are (justifiably) criticized for exoticizing every not-Western place in fiction and writing books like this where the exotic, interesting, quirky, foreign, exotic, colorful, picayune did I mention exotic locals are props to decorate and color up the narrator's exotic journey through exotic foreignlandia. But this sounds like Attacharya did pretty much the same thing.

aruna
05-03-2012, 07:58 PM
Well, of course, no life-enriching sightseeing tour through exotic foreignlandia is complete without scoring some "feisty yet fragile" foreign tail. I'm surprised she wasn't a prostitute whose life the authorMC changed by being "nice" to her (read: had a conversation with her in which he briefly pretends the poor thing is an actual person).

This part of the book made me particularly uncomfortable. The thing is, poor, uneducated Guyanese women are invariably very easily seduced by foreigners with money -- and if he whisks such a woman off on a foreign holiday, you really can't complain when she becomes demanding and wanting more and more and more (which is what happens.) Then he drops her like a hot potato -- when she gets into trouble with the police all he cares about is saving his own hide. Truly, he leaves her in a terrible, terrible postition - probably in jail (OK< that was a spolier. Sorry.) while he high tails it out of the country. I really, really hoped this part at least was fiction.





Yup. Western authors are (justifiably) criticized for exoticizing every not-Western place in fiction and writing books like this where the exotic, interesting, quirky, foreign, exotic, colorful, picayune did I mention exotic locals are props to decorate and color up the narrator's exotic journey through exotic foreignlandia. But this sounds like Attacharya did pretty much the same thing

Yep, he did. You can almost feel him congratulating himself on mastering the dialect and hanging out with all the picaresque, half-criminal existences, as if he is one of the boys.

So, in the final analysis, my feelings are no longer mixed. It's pretty dire, even if the writing is good.

aruna
08-19-2012, 03:04 PM
Sorry -- I couldn't help it. It seems that this book is kicking up a bit of a storm in Guyana, with mostly women objecting to the way we are portrayed. Some reviewer decided to point to us saying it is our own behaviour that caused this, and so we have only ourselves or our fellow-women to blame.
I HAD to respond to that! (http://www.amazon.com/review/R3UMRKADKRQNWB/ref=cm_cr_rev_detup_redir?_encoding=UTF8&asin=1250007402&cdForum=FxDWZDP35NT7VX&cdPage=1&cdThread=Tx3EONCYKVSET0N&newContentID=Mx8QYUTY2SZXRR&store=books#Mx8QYUTY2SZXRR)

Purple Rose
08-19-2012, 03:42 PM
Sorry -- I couldn't help it. It seems that this book is kicking up a bit of a storm in Guyana, with mostly women objecting to the way we are portrayed. Some reviewer decided to point to us saying it is our own behaviour that caused this, and so we have only ourselves or our fellow-women to blame.
I HAD to respond to that! (http://www.amazon.com/review/R3UMRKADKRQNWB/ref=cm_cr_rev_detup_redir?_encoding=UTF8&asin=1250007402&cdForum=FxDWZDP35NT7VX&cdPage=1&cdThread=Tx3EONCYKVSET0N&newContentID=Mx8QYUTY2SZXRR&store=books#Mx8QYUTY2SZXRR)

Ooooh aruna, EXCELLENT response! I can't believe I missed your opening post from way back in April.

All I can say is that you should persevere with your book. I cannot for the life of me understand the resistance by agents. It is a GREAT story that needs to be re-told for a new generation. The fact many people do not know of Guyana should add intrigue and pique their interest. Or so i would have thought.

By the way, I really enjoyed reading Mahabharata. It took me a while but I must say you made the story so much easier, so much more enjoyable, to read. Thank you for my prize. :D